Politics

StatsCan chief statistician quit in 'last desperate bid' to protect agency's autonomy

High-ranking federal bureaucrats don't tend to resign publicly, or on principle. Yet that's just what Wayne Smith did on Friday in a move he described as desperate, and one that's made him, in his words, a black sheep among his peers.

'Reminiscent of Soviet-style central planning,' says Wayne Smith about government's IT plan

Former chief statistician Wayne Smith says that since leaving Statistics Canada he has received many supportive messages from provincial and national offices, as well as the OECD and United Nations. (CBC)

High-ranking federal bureaucrats don't tend to resign publicly, or on principle. Yet that's just what Wayne Smith did on Friday in a move he described as desperate, and one that's made him, in his words, a black sheep among his peers. 

In an interview with CBC News, Canada's former chief statistician says he's at peace with his decision to quit over the federal government's troubled tech support agency, Shared Services Canada, which he says has compromised Statistics Canada's independence. 

Smith submitted his letter of resignation to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Aug. 3. In it, he thanked Trudeau for giving him the opportunity to reinstate the long-form census, and then he outlined his reasons for leaving.

"I made clear that if I did resign it would be with the intention of making public my concerns. So that was my last desperate bid, I guess, to persuade the government to sit down and talk about this. Didn't work," Smith said with a smile.

On Sept. 15, Smith received two letters. The first was from Trudeau, who Smith said acknowledged receipt of his correspondence and restated his commitment to the independence of Statistics Canada. The second was from Privy Council Clerk Michael Wernick, who accepted his resignation.

"Well, it told me quite clearly that the government has no intention of changing course," said Smith.

Created by the previous government in 2011, Shared Services Canada was created to centralize the federal government's information technology services in order to improve security and save money. While officials at Shared Services say government information is now more secure, they concede savings are more elusive.

"The exact path towards savings is not nailed down yet," Shared Services president Ron Parker told reporters today at a technical briefing about the agency's transformation plan.

Security of information concerns

Smith said he's received many supportive messages from provincial and national offices, as well as the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development and United Nations. According to Smith, those bodies understand how giving another agency complete control over Statistics Canada's information technologies can compromise its independence.

"In fact, the United Kingdom and Australia are two examples where similar [IT centralization] projects were considered and the statistical office was exempted."

But Smith said he has heard nothing from his colleagues in the federal government. "I think I may be, right at the moment, I'm the black sheep in the federal family."

'You can't plan something that big, that way. It's broken and they need to recognize it's broken, step back and think it again.' - Former StatsCan chief statistician Wayne Smith

Among his beefs with Shared Services, Smith said, is that he doesn't believe the current arrangement respects provisions of the Statistics Act pertaining to the confidentiality of respondent information. But Parker told reporters Monday that Statistics Canada's data cannot be viewed by Shared Services employees — all of which have been security cleared to secret level. 

And while the arguments about independence and privacy are to some extent academic, Smith told CBC that Statistics Canada is suffering from nuts and bolts technical problems such as a lack of server space and processing capacity.

"If you can't process the data, if we're constantly being interrupted by failures of equipment, then it's going to take us more time to get the labour force survey out, more time to get the consumer price index out," said Smith.

'No technical issues raised'

Yet on Friday, in response to Smith's resignation, a spokesperson for Shared Services said, "There are currently no outstanding operational issues between our two departments."

Smith called the statement misleading.

"The day before I left, my assistant statisticians were gathering around the table and saying that there are a whole series of projects that are about to go red because we cannot get the support that we need. We're about to run out of capacity just for our ongoing operations," Smith said with exasperation.

Among them are requests for additional information from the government to support evidence-based decision-making and, Smith added, improvements to make the Statistics Canada website more user-friendly.

Parker told reporters that Smith raised no technical issues at a meeting in April. He added that delays to get new servers up and running have been subject to disagreements about where they should be installed and who would pay for them.

As for revisions to the Statistics Canada website, another Shared Services official said the agency was not clear enough about its expectations.

Regardless, the government is standing firm on its commitment to move ahead with its plans for Shared Services. Smith said it's hard for him to comprehend.

"You know they're trying to establish some kind of governance at the centre with a committee of deputies. That's kind of reminiscent of Soviet-style central planning. You can't plan something that big that way. It's broken and they need to recognize it's broken, step back and think it again. Otherwise, in my prediction, this will be a money pit," Smith warned.